SJF • Lent 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”+
In the movie The Karate Kid, young Daniel seeks a master to teach him karate. The master tells him he must agree to obey his instructions to the letter, without any objection, without any question. Daniel has visions of that smart white suit, and a black belt within easy reach, so he readily makes that promise.
But when he shows up for his first class, karate master Miyagi-sensei tells him to hold on to his T-shirt and jeans; he’s not ready for that smart uniform yet. Instead of taking him to the work-out room the Master takes Daniel outside and puts him to work painting a fence, showing him exactly how the brush must move, evenly and smoothly up and down. Daniel figures since Miyagi-sensei is going to teach him karate for free this is the least he can do, to paint the old man’s fence for him.
The next day he arrives expecting to start class, only Miyagi-san puts him to work scrubbing the floor, again showing him how to move the wash-brush left and right. And again, Daniel thinks this is probably only fair trade — but begins to wonder when the karate lesson is going to start.
The next day he figures it’s about time, only to discover Miyagi-san has another chore: washing and waxing three beat-up old cars, after more tedious instruction, on how to bend to fill the sponge with soapy water, and how to move the polishing cloth in circles circles circles. When the end of that long day comes — this third day — the boy can restrain himself no more, and blurts out, “I thought you were going to teach me karate, but I’ve only been doing your chores!”
Miyagi-sensei turns in anger. Daniel has broken his promise to do as he was told without question, without objection. The old man snarls, “I have been teaching you karate. Defend yourself!” and thrusts out his arm, up, then down. And Daniel, reacting immediately, guards himself up and then down, with exactly the movement he’d used to paint the fence.
The Master then sends out a powerful kick, and using the same bending motion he’d used while dipping the sponge in the soapy bucket, Daniel dodges. And so it is for each assault the old man throws; each one is countered with a movement learned in the household chores. At the end the Master stares at the boy, frowning, but with a little bit of a twinkle in his eye, and then walks away in silence.
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The church has it’s own training program for body building — building the body of Christ, that is. And sometimes the program may seem to have as little to do with the life of the world to come as painting a fence has to do with karate. But if we look closely at the discipline of the church, we will find that it works in much the same way, strengthening us and training us to do God’s work even as we do worldly work.
And I take as an example the Ten Commandments, God’s training plan, which we repeated in the Decalogue at the beginning of our liturgy, and heard in full as our first lesson this morning. Only the first three commandments directly address what you would normally call “religious” issues, directly defining our relationship with God. The fourth commandment is transitional: it deals both with God and us, and relates our rest here upon earth with God’s heavenly rest at the end of creation.
But the rest of the commandments, a majority six out of ten, deal with entirely human affairs, and hardly seem theological at all — God is only even mentioned in the commandment to honor ones parents, to assure those who do so of a reward. Apart from this passing mention to God, the last six commandments focus entirely upon us, and how we are relate to each other. We turn, as Jesus’ own summary of the law puts it, from matters concerning our love of God to matters concerning our love of neighbors, with our parents standing right there as the first “neighbor” we encounter.
From the commands to worship God alone, to accept no substitutes for God, to honor God’s name and to remember the sabbath, we move to the commandments about honoring our parents, not killing, not being unfaithful, not stealing, not bearing false witness, and not envying our neighbors. Those six commandments have nothing explicitly to do with God, and yet it is God who gives them to us; it is God who gives us these exercises, these chores.
It may seem to be as irrelevant to religion as fence-painting is to karate, but God knows better. God knows that if we do not love our neighbor we cannot love him. God gives us each other to practice on, so to speak, teaching us what love is all about. You may remember what John the beloved disciple wrote, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”1 John 4:20
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Still there are those who think, like the Karate Kid, that they can rush right into loving God without loving their neighbor. They concentrate their effort on the externals, and miss the essence. And when the Master comes, he is simply furious.
Look at what happened to the Temple in Jerusalem — which was intended as a house of prayer for all people. The priests had leased out the Court of the Gentiles, leaded it out to traders, as if the Gentiles didn’t matter to God, as if all the rest of the people of the earth didn’t deserve their place in God’s Temple, as if God hadn’t provided them with their own space to worship him. The leaders rejected God’s transforming grace. The conformed the Temple to a world-view in which Jew and Gentile couldn’t possibly get along, let alone worship in the same building. They refused God’s purpose that the Temple be used as a training ground for the next world, for God’s new creation, in which all people — Gentile and Jew alike, would be gathered into God’s kingdom.
The Temple took 46 years to build, and about a decade to corrupt. But it took only a day to cleanse it, when the Master came to whip it into shape.
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We still need periodic visits from our Lord and Master, and normally we get them once each week on the Christian sabbath, the Lord’s day, when God reminds us that our religious disciplines are meant to turn us into disciples; our love and honor shown to God are meant to equip us to love and honor each other, to train us to be all that we can be. God wants to build the body of the Church, the body of Christ.
When our worship of God doesn’t have our heart in it, when it is mixed with worldly concerns, it won’t be able to inspire and lead us to love our neighbors more. And if our love and respect for our neighbors is only a token and a show, it will not equip us an empower us to know and love God. But when our love and respect for others is truly and freely given, it will strengthen us to bear God’s love, building our spiritual muscles as we are clothed with grace to bear the weight of glory, freed from the body of death and given the body of life, which we become as we are built into the church.
And as I say, when it doesn’t work, when we come to see loving God and neighbor as empty exercises that have nothing to do with our daily life or the life of the world to come, well, that’s when we need the Master to spark us to remember what we’ve learned, to spark us to life as he challenges us, and changes our chores into charisms.
That transformation of ourselves, our souls and bodies, into something better than what we are to start with, that took more than one day, the day Jesus took to whip the earthly Temple into shape. No, this takes a bit longer. It takes three days — from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. For it is in that particular destruction and rebuilding, that destruction that took place on Good Friday, and that rebuilding that took place through the rest in the tomb, and on to the glorious rising on Easter Day, Jesus shows us how completely made-over we can become when we live in him, when we allow him to live in us; when we let him into our hearts to transform the temple of our body into something new and amazing — even if it takes 46 years to build, or 56, 66 — dare I say 86? There is always room for rebirth, renewal and restoration. And we don’t the strength to do it on our own.
Who will deliver us when our spirit fails and languishes? Who will deliver us when our discipline seems pointless, and our spiritual well runs dry? Who will deliver us when our friends and our neighbors just get to be too much for us and we flee to some imagined sacred haven where it will just be God and us? Who will deliver us from this body of death?
Well, thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord! For Jesus Christ, starting with his own death and resurrection on that weekend long ago, shows us perfect body building: building his body, the church, that wonderful and sacred mystery. And it starts out there, my friends, out in the world, out there where six out of ten of the commandments are obeyed, out in the world where it is so tempting to dishonor our elders, to lie and to cheat and to steal and to kill and to covet. For if we have not made peace and loved our sisters and brothers outside the doors of this church, we will find neither peace nor love within. We will simply find ourselves changing the coins and buying the pigeons, instead of worshiping the one true God who alone is love.
But again I say, thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord! He will help us; he has helped us. He has not forsaken us, and has in his own person shown us that even what is dead can come to life, when it is built up in him. When spiritually dead are raised to new life when they let Jesus into their lives, they can be built into the body of the church to do God’s will in the world.
When the church is working as it should, trained by its Lord and Master, it is a marvelous thing to see. When the church is working as it should, people can love the unlovable, forgive those who hurt them, comfort those who suffer, rejoice with the joyous, kneel with the humble, and stand with the righteous. This is the body that God wants to build us into if we will let him. This is what God means the church to be. This is what Christ died for, and this is what he was raised to life for. Are you ready, sisters and brothers; are you ready? +